Monday, March 29, 2010

Serving up the Agawam ... and more

The Agawam Diner is something of an institution around here, in this remote corner ... you know, you’re almost tempted to finish that sentence by writing “’round these parts,” because the Rowley diner, known for its stainless steel exteriors and art deco appearance, just has that kind of feel, all nostalgic and all New England, the kind of place where you can get food that will put meat on your bones, as folks used to say about, um, wholesome meals, and get plenty on your plate without much distress to your back pocket — served up by staffers who call you “Hun” without irony and don’t get all weird on you when you order pie for breakfast. The Agawam has the same sort of emotional feel as Cheers: The diner, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places — no, really — is like a community, an extended family, almost. It’s the kind of place where you figure everybody knows your name — and your stories. And many of your foibles. They didn’t really know Joshua Faigen’s name at first, after the Newburyport resident had been showing up there and hanging out for more than an hour every week while his son Adlai was getting tutoring up the street a little bit. No, it wasn’t the famed New England reserve: They knew him by role, not name: He was Max’s father — not, well, Norm or Cliffie. They didn’t actually know his proper name until last year, after Faigen had finished his play about the diner.

Actually, a couple of clarifications from the playwright at this point: First, the diner isn’t a community exactly, or, rather, not a single community. “It’s a bunch of communities,” says Faigen, “communities come together and fall apart in the course of 10 minutes as people come and go.” Second, despite its name and setting, the play, which begins a three-week run at the Actors Studio on April 8, is not actually about the diner any more than Elvis Costello’s video for “45,” which was filmed at the Rowley landmark, which is also featured on the cover of the US edition of Cruel Smile. Actually, Faigen isn’t even sure what the play is about. “I’m never exactly sure what I’ve written until someone tells me,” he says. Which is fair enough, seeing how his work is rarely, if ever, narrative or plot driven. The work often has a leisurely focus on mood, language, situations. For example, his last play, ironically named “A Very Simple Play,” was built around Robert Schumann’s “Davidsbundlertanzes,” a glorious piece by a fabulously insane composer, a piece that was written to defend the new music against revanchist forces, the classical thugs Schumann imagined lurking in the wings.

It’s not a culinary roman a clef, based on his weekly temptation with blueberry pie, and regulars will not recognize any of the characters — except for the old guy playing his beat-up old tuba to pay for his meal. Tubaman was one of the first intriguing people Faigen encountered at the diner. The rest, well, not so much: Jesus, the real-world night cook; Sully, the vagabond Willy Loman-type philosopher; the nameless Old Man with his Girlfriend-for-a-Day — one kind of tight, the other, er, a little loose; the mysterious Man of God. They all drop by for a bite and some chit-chat with Rita and Elaine. “It’s a kind of magical night, a winter night,” says producer Marc Clopton, “a night that is full of longing and fulfilling, that looks at how we cope with our lives and what we do with our imaginations.” Everyone’s biding his time, wondering when the snow will arrive and what life might have been like had they made different choices, says the playwright. They drink coffee, they eat pie. A miracle happens, maybe two. Then everyone’s life shifts a few degrees in a better direction. Or maybe not.

The show had originally been slated to run in November, but casting problems canceled that order. Not a problem this time out. The current production features an all-star cast: Kathleen Anderson, Missy Chabot, Damon Singletary, Jack Rushton, Kayt Tommasino, John Sheedy and Teddy Speck. Stephen Haley directs. Which, at first blush, seems odd — an unconventional play for a director best known for his intense productions of Beckett and his near-fanatical pursuit of textural clarity, but his comfort zone is actually much broader. Haley closed last season with productions of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” and “A Christmas Carol,” and people with especially long memories may recall him as dramaturge for Harbor Theater Festival’s production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” “The work he’s done for this show is absolutely remarkable,” says Faigen. “It’s kind of thrilling to have him on board.”

JUST THE FACTS, MAN: Joshua Faigen’s “The Agawam” runs April 8 to 25 at the Actors Studio, The Tannery, 50 Water Street, Mill #1. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday to Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $15, $13 for students and seniors. Space is limited. Reservations are encouraged. To make a reservation, log onto the Actors Studio web or telephone 978.465.1229. Rehearsal photo of Kathleen Anderson by Max Faigen.

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